News 13 Jan

Rally against Georgia poll result

Thousands of opposition supporters have taken to the streets in Georgia in protest at what they say were rigged presidential elections last weekend. Those gathered in the capital, Tbilisi, are demanding a second round of voting. Pro-Western leader Mikhail Saakashvili polled 53%, narrowly averting a run-off against his nearest rival, Levan Gachechiladze, who won 25% of the vote. Mr Saakashvili called the snap poll to resolve a crisis after suppressing anti-government rallies two months ago.

The BBC’s Neil Arun, who was at the rally, said much of the protesters’ anger was directed at Western observers who have said the polls were essentially democratic, although there were significant problems. The authorities have warned the demonstrators they will not tolerate any more civil unrest.

And time and time again, consistently, there surface allegations of fraud. This is not to say Georgia is a failure at democracy, but that there were serious problems in the conduct of these elections is in no doubt.

Georgia protesters give poll icy reception

Facing the demonstrators across the river was the Narikala fortress, established in the 4th Century AD and expanded in the 16th. Closer to the crowd, overlooking it from a hill, was the glass dome of Mr Saakashvili’s new presidential palace, lofty and unfinished.

“The courts are corrupt, the prisons are full. There is no justice, no democracy in this country,” said Nikusha, a man in his early 20s with his face half-hidden by a scarf. “He is selling off the country,” said another young man, Rati. “Sure, we need foreign investment but he is giving all our wealth away for nothing.” Nearby, a group of women waved posters of the main opposition presidential candidate, Levan Gachechiladze. “Saakashvili promised us democracy but he has given us a dictatorship,” said Nino, in her late 50s.

“Saakashvili is far from perfect but he’s the best man for this country right now,” says Giorgi, who works as a translator for foreign companies. “These opposition guys think democracy is like a tree-house you build over the weekend. But it takes years of strong leadership for it.”

He is widely credited with smashing the crime syndicates that once controlled Georgia and with cutting corruption in the police force. Some of the president’s backers say that while his opponents complain of authoritarianism, it is authority itself that they resent.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili follows a quintessentially Russian (Petrine) means of modernizing the country’s social institutions – by a regression into authoritarianism, which can paradoxically reinforce pre-existing reactionary tendencies. Everything said of Saakashvili above – praise and criticism – can be said of Putin too. Putin, though, gets most of the latter in the Western press, while Saakashvili is a darling. And so the Annals of Western Hypocrisy go on.

The BBC Russian story is bigger on facts. Saakashvili won 53.47%, followered by Gachechiladze (25.69) and Patarkatsishvili (7.10%). This was confirmed by the Electoral Commission by a narrow margin (7 to 6). Saakashvili is by law the President of Georgia and his position seems secure for now, despite the opposition’s impressive achievement of bringing 70,000 people out onto the streets in Tblisi. Nonetheless, revolutions are rarely made in poor weather, and the demonstrations were called off after record frosts in the Georgian capital.

Beer becomes the toast of Russia

Russians’ love of vodka shows no sign of abating but over the past few years soaring beer sales suggest old and young alike have turned their attention elsewhere. Beer consumption has risen from 20 litres per person a year to nearly 80 litres and while growth appears to be slowing that is from sky-high levels.

Against guidance growth of 5 per cent in 2005, and 3-5 per cent in the following two years, the beer market grew 6 per cent in 2005, 10 per cent in 2006 and 17 per cent in the first nine months of last year. Growth at BBH, the market leader in Russia with a 38 per cent share, has been even more explosive. The brewer saw sales rise 21 per cent in 2005 and 2006, and 33 per cent in the first three quarters of 2007.

That is a view echoed, perhaps not surprisingly, by John Nicholson, head of S&N’s international business and its senior executive in Russia. “This year Baltika is set to exceed Heineken as Europe’s most popular lager, while Russia will become the third-biggest beer market in the world,” he says. Zagvozdina also points out that while sales growth is slowing, the value of the market is rising fast as prices increase and consumers switch to more expensive beers.The Renaissance analyst says she believes the value of the market grew 21-23 per cent last year, and she expects growth of up to 14 per cent this year with at least a further four years of further “robust growth”.

Nicholson says: “Disposable income is rising at such a pace that consumers are trading up and there is a lifestyle change away from vodka. We launched Foster’s and Kronenbourg 18 months ago. Kronenbourg is the most expensive brand in the market but it has seen huge growth.” With the Western European markets going backwards in terms of sales volumes, the attraction of Russia, with its 140m inhabitants, is plain to see. With the neighbouring markets that BBH operates in, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, providing a similar population collectively, the attractions become compelling.

We can’t say we entirely approve of this development (it would be much better in terms of public health for Russia to develop as a wine-drinking country – it’s even got the potential to produce wine of its own, near its Black Sea coast), it illustrates Russians’ rapidly rising real incomes, which have been growing at more than 10% annually for the last decade. It’s not surprising, then, that beer consumption has increased so much, especially when you counter in the fact that Russian TV fills up with beer adverts after 9pm every day in the same way American TV is always full of ionised junk food. While DR prefers wine, champagne, we’ll settle for a nice cold bottle of Baltika over a KFC any day.

Is Pulp Fiction Russia’s Failure? – this article basically says that Russians are better at reading academically (Russian 4th-graders came first internationally in the PIRLS 2006 reading assessment) than reading to solve everyday problems (in the PISA 2006 Reading section Russians scored substantially below the international average).

Odnoklassniki: Russians Connect to Their Student Days – Russians can use the Internet to reconnect with their former school buddies.

Russian cruiser heads for the Mediterranean – part of Russia’s reassertion of its strength. This is linked to it building a naval base in Syria.